Dining Room for the Fat Cats: Popular, Respected and Chic, the Four-Gallery Tate Empire Has Forged an Unassailable Position in British Culture. but Is Its Passion for Attracting Corporate Support at Odds with Its Public Service Remit?

By Wu, Chin-tao | New Statesman (1996), August 2, 2004 | Go to article overview

Dining Room for the Fat Cats: Popular, Respected and Chic, the Four-Gallery Tate Empire Has Forged an Unassailable Position in British Culture. but Is Its Passion for Attracting Corporate Support at Odds with Its Public Service Remit?


Wu, Chin-tao, New Statesman (1996)


"At Tate Modern we have even found a sponsor for lavatory paper," revealed Nicholas Serota in a recent newspaper article. The director of the Tate Gallery was celebrating the success currently being enjoyed by museums throughout Britain. Was this a subtle reference to the harmonious equilibrium of body and soul that art and its supporting institutions are said to promote? I think not. It is much more likely that the knighted supremo of the contemporary British art world was openly boasting about the new level of intimacy that he has reached with his commercial backers. If corporate sponsorship can be enlisted in this way to satisfy the most basic alimentary need of a national art institution, is there anything left at Tate Modern, you wonder, that has not been touted to the highest bidder? Surely this is what "doing the business" really means.

Serota has been bedding down with big businesses and wealthy patrons ever since he first arrived at the Tate Gallery in 1988. In order to realise its many ambitious projects, including the opening of Tate Modern and the expansion of Tate Britain, the gallery soon developed, under Serota's inspiring leadership, an insatiable appetite for bigger and bigger money--particularly private and corporate cash--to supplement its staple diet of public funds. Within a few years, every gallery space had been unashamedly transformed into a memorial to its wealthy patrons, and there was hardly a single exhibition for which Tate did not solicit (and get) significant levels of corporate support.

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Following the high-profile [pounds sterling]1.25m sponsorship from Unilever to launch Serota's pet project of Tate Modern in 2000, the gallery for the first time allowed a company name to be used alongside its own when it inaugurated the "Unilever Series" of art commissions. This brand-marketing collaboration between multinational company and public art institution took Tate's partnership with big business to new and glamorous heights. The recent sponsorship of lavatory paper, decidedly less glamorous but none the less imaginative, has to be seen, therefore, as the latest in a long line of similar entrepreneurial initiatives.

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There are few art institutions in Britain, perhaps in the world, that could have negotiated a deal that so proudly equates the excretory with the profit motive. But there again, the Tate is no ordinary art institution. Since the opening of Tate Modern, it has been in the premier league of world art galleries. Tate is well aware of the power of its brand, and is far from coy when it comes to putting it to good use. In the catalogue for its 1996 Cezanne exhibition, the gallery congratulated itself on its "reputation for developing imaginative fundraising initiatives" and on working "closely with sponsors to ensure that their business interests are well served". It is hard to imagine any art institution surviving the Thatcher years without becoming skilled in cosying up to business. The question is, what particular business interests are we talking about? And in what ways does Tate set out to serve them?

Thanks to Tate Britain's proximity to Westminster, its corporate membership programme is able to provide all the facilities of a strategically placed watering hole, a unique and exclusive location in which to entertain important business clients and influential fellow travellers from government circles. …

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Dining Room for the Fat Cats: Popular, Respected and Chic, the Four-Gallery Tate Empire Has Forged an Unassailable Position in British Culture. but Is Its Passion for Attracting Corporate Support at Odds with Its Public Service Remit?
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